Having spent six of the last eight years working in countries where the mother tongue is Slavic, articles are a real problem for most of my students. This is an old photo from Sevastopol, which I’ve just rediscovered, of a diagram which I use again and again to help them understand the rules, although the percentage I attach to it changes from use to use!
I encourage students to use the chart whenever they’re not sure which article to choose or why an article has (not) been used. They ask a series of questions:
- Is the noun countable or uncountable?
- Countable only: Is it singular or plural?
- Is it general or specific?
Most of the time, this is enough for them to choose the correct article, or to understand why articles have or have not been used in a reading passage they are analysing. I count ‘a/an’ for first mentions as general because you don’t know which one people are referring to yet. I also point out to them that if in doubt, ‘the’ is correct in 50% of situations!
Of course, if this isn’t enough and you want to cover the exceptions too, you could try my über-complicated articles chart in which I attempted to cover everything! It’s probably time to simplify that a bit 🙂